My Friend, Marco

The following is a short story I wrote for my high school students.  Lately in Japan, there is a lot of talk about bullying.  But to be honest, I’m not really sure what bullying is.  And when I asked my students about it, almost all of them said something along the lines of, “Bullying is when someone feels like they have been bullied.”  But this way of defining bullying seems to put all the responsibility on the victim of bullying.  What happens if the victim doesn’t realise they are being bullied?  Does that really mean that there’s no bullying taking place (in Japan, that actually does seem to be the case).  Anyway, I wanted to discuss these issues with my students, for both my own understanding and to maybe help make a safer school environment.  That was the main impetus for writing this story (as well as to exorcise a few of my own nagging demons).  We used it in class, it generated a fair among of conversation, and even led to the illustrations that are scattered here and there in the text.  It’s a 984 word story and 98.47% of the words fall within the NGSL (New General Service List) so it should be appropriate for intermediate level students and above.  I’ll try and follow up with a post about how I used it in class and some more details of the students’ reactions.  But for now, I hope you will give the story a read.  Thanks in advance for your time and also any comments you might have on how to recognise bullying or to get students to talk about the issue in general. My Friend, Marco (a short story for ELLs) (all pictures by Clark International Course students)

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photo 5 When I was seven years old, I knew everything about everything.  I knew the names of all the people who lived in my 32 house neighbourhood.  I knew which dogs would bite and which wouldn’t.  I knew which trees you could steal apples from and which you couldn’t.  I also thought I knew this boy who lived across the street.  His name was Marco.  That’s not a great name to have as a child.  The other students all called him Marco Polio and ran away whenever he walked towards them.  Marco wore eye-glasses with heavy black frames.  Sometimes Marco would start swinging his head back and forth really quickly for no reason.  A few times his glasses flew right off his head and broke against the wall of the school. photo 3 I used to sit with Marco during lunch.  He didn’t say much.  But when the lunch room got too noisy, he covered his ears with his hands and started singing the children’s song Row Row Row Your Boat to himself.

Anyway, Marco loved ants. He had a jar full of big black ants.  During the summer, Marco used to sit in front of his house and stare at those ants for hours.  He didn’t wear a hat.  He didn’t move into the shade under the big tree in his front yard.  He just sat there in the summer sun, his hair sticking up here and there, and stared at those ants. photo 1-2 One day, I went out and filled up my own jar with ants, only I collected the red kind. Red ants are terribly mean.  They will bite a person for no good reason.  And boy are they fast.  I went up to Marco and said, “Want to try an experiment?”  I said that the red ants were fast and good at fighting, but the black ants were big and strong.  I said we could mix them together and they would have babies and the babies would grow up to be a super red-black ant combination that was big, strong, fast and good at fighting.  Marco wasn’t really listening to me.  He was still looking at his own jar of ants, with his mouth kind of half-opened.  So I grabbed Marco’s jar and took the lid off.  Then I poured the ants out of my jar and into his.  And those red ants just started attacking the black ants.  They tore the black ants’ heads right off.  Marco started pulling at his own hair and swinging his head back and forth so hard I thought that maybe his head was going to fall off too.  He kept saying, “This is a tragedy.  This is a tragedy.”

photo 4Marco also had the best tree to climb in the whole neighbourhood.  But whenever I climbed the tree in Marco’s yard, Marco always stayed down at the bottom.  He never exactly said he didn’t like climbing trees, but he never tried to climb a tree himself.  One day I decided Marco really really needed to climb a tree.  I thought it would be good for him, maybe help him to see the world in a different way.  So I got under him and started pushing him up the trunk.  Marco was saying no, no, no, no, no, no.  And I kept saying, just go up, just go up, just go up.  Then it was like an engine got turned on in Marco and he started climbing.  He dug his hands right into the bark and pulled himself up and up and up.  He climbed all the way up to the first branch, about 8 feet above my head.  Then he just froze.  He didn’t say anything.  He just sat up there with his eyes closed, his arms wrapped around the branch.  I asked him to come down.  I said I would give him all the money I had in my pocket, $1.42.  Finally, I started screaming at him, “come down here right now!  Come on down you idiot!  Come down!”  I don’t know how long I was out there screaming like that.  But then I heard my mother calling for me to get home for dinner.  And so I left.  When I turned and looked back, I could see Marco still up in that damn tree.

I know it sounds like I was a pretty terrible child.  But in my experience, all children are terrible.  And anyway, I don’t do things like that anymore.  I have my own car shop. I’m a father.  I have a seven year old daughter.  I drive her 45 minutes to piano lessons.  I read her books before she goes to sleep.  Sometimes I tell her about what I used to do when I was her age.  I tell her about the snowball fights we had, but not about the blood dripping from Marcos’ nose.  I also don’t tell her about those red ants.  When I remember the small neighbourhood where I grew up, the white houses and cracked sidewalks, I can see Marco out of the corner of my imagination.  He’s still there, still up in that tree.  He is still waiting for me to help him down.  But I’m stuck here.  On the other side of time.  There is no way I can get back there.  There is no way for me to say I’m sorry for all the things I did.  Even worse, there is no way to say thank you. photo 2-2When I watch my daughter walking to school in the morning, always by herself, always with her head down, I realise that Marco was the closest thing I had to a friend then.  When I was seven years old, I thought I knew everything about everything.  But really, I didn’t know anything at all.  I didn’t even know that without Marco, I would have been alone every day of that long empty summer.

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A PDF version of the story is available for download as well: My Friend, Marco

Vocabulary Profile: If the words ‘jar’ and ‘ant’ are pre-taught or glossed, 98.47 of the words fall within the NGSL (New General Service List) as profiled on the VP-Complete-Input Vocabulary Profiler ( on Tom Cobb’s Lextutor site (  The specific breakdown is:
984 words total
NGSL_1 (first 1000 lemmas): 91.20%
NGSL_2 (2nd and 1st 1000 lemmas): 96.22%
NGSL_3 (2nd and 1st 1000 lemmas plus additional 801 lemmas): 98.47%

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